Tonko on Trump, Yucca and plans for big climate bill

Source: By George Cahlink, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Upstate New York political lore holds that Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko never misses a neighborhood picnic, a weekend festival or local political rally in his Albany-based district.

“It seems he must have a twin or a triplet because he is everywhere,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, repeating a joke shared by several political operatives about the six-term lawmaker.

On Capitol Hill, Tonko keeps a similarly frenetic pace, where he is the only lawmaker serving on the Energy and Commerce; Natural Resources; and Science, Space and Technology committees.

A serious legislator, Tonko sought the assignments because he knew they would place him at the center of the major committees seeking to address global greenhouse gas emissions.

Tonko’s main work is on Energy and Commerce, where he leads the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. In recent months, he has been focused on writing legislation for the nation to move to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a proposal referred to as “100 by ’50.”

An energy focus is a natural fit for Tonko, a former engineer who spent nearly 25 years in the New York State Assembly, including the last 15 heading its Energy Committee.

Tonko, 70, said his interest in science and public service date to his being captivated as a teenager by the space race unfolding on television.

During a recent visit to the Albany district, E&E News followed Tonko on a typically busy day and chatted with the lawmaker for several hours.

What’s the time frame for “100 by ’50” legislation?

I’m hoping before the end of the year we’ll have some good bills to put out there. I don’t know how quickly we’ll be able to do the carbon pricing. But I think you’ll have elements of climate change legislation.

Will you definitely offer carbon pricing legislation this Congress?

I would like to. It probably will be next year because, let’s face it, we’re in October and we still have to get a lot of feedback.

Will a carbon pricing bill move beyond the committee to the floor?

We would at least move it out of committee and have it serve as a good focal point. But who knows? If it’s received really well, we could perhaps get it out of the House.

You have talked about a hybrid approach on carbon pricing. How might that work?

I’m just thinking out loud here, not really declaring. It could be a modified tax of some sort. I don’t know how that would be applied. And then to get us the rest, move to cap and trade or cap and dividend. There is a complexion there that we don’t know about.

You have also said there are less contentious climate bills that could move. What are some examples?

Certainly, the weatherization bill. Some of the workforce development stuff that we’ve been doing. And I think we’ll probably have some bills for charging stations for electric vehicles that will come.

What do you tell some of the more liberal, green groups who want bolder, faster action on climate?

I can introduce all kinds of bills, but if they can’t pass I’m not helping the climate. I want to be science-based and evidence-based. It’s a very complex arena. It’s one that deals with an essential commodity.

I’ll keep sharing that with my colleagues to make certain that what we’re doing is providing the greatest potential emissions reduction at the least impact to consumer cost. That should be our goal.

How’s the relationship going between your subcommittee and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis?

It’s going OK. [Select committee Chairwoman] Kathy Castor [D-Fla.] and I are good friends, and we have a lot of the same thinking. We try to coordinate as well as we can. They’re growing the interest [in climate action] across the country, but it ultimately comes to Energy and Commerce to do the statutory thing.

There’s probably always coordination improvements that you could make. But I try to update them, and I think they update me.

Are you concerned about climate denial coming from the White House?

I don’t want this president to redefine the Republican Party. I think they need to break from what I think is archaic [thinking on the environment] and move forward in a way that is where America is on [climate action].

Are there Republicans you can work with?

[Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change ranking member] John Shimkus is good to work with, and we’ve been able to get stuff done.

I think I’m going to have a good working relationship with [Florida] Rep. [Francis] Rooney, we’re on the same wavelength.

I’ve worked with [West Virginia Rep.] Dave McKinley on some energy efficiency stuff. And [Missouri Rep.] Billy Long is kind of fun to work with. He’s a character.

On another energy topic, will Yucca Mountain legislation get to the floor this Congress?

That would be a leadership decision, but it was even a struggle [to pass it earlier this year] within committee.

Is there anything else you can do on interim storage or more modest things that might be able to move?

We did the interim bill [as part of the larger bill]. Some people didn’t like that plan, but I think if we can’t get the Yucca thing done, [interim] becomes the go-to, and you know it’s passed before, so it could pass again.

On an issue that has really emerged this Congress, where do things stand on PFAS legislation?

It would depend on how the negotiations with [the National Defense Authorization Act] go. But even if they go well, I think there’s still a path, I could see [Energy and Commerce] wanting to do more.

In what areas?

Drinking water laws, putting together some firefighter protection language and I think consumer notification should be part of it. I think we had 13 bills that we went through [on PFAS in subcommittee].

A lot of them were voice-voted with the intention to sit down and work so that when they come to the full committee, maybe we can get it done.

Any progress on energy tax legislation?

I hope so. I’ve talked to Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, and he’s offered a lot of support, he hears us and he’s doing his best I think there. I’m hoping there’s going to be an energy tax policy bill that they do.

But, you know, we need to extend some of these [renewable] incentive packages. I think it’s important. We really need to go gangbusters here. I don’t know where the president would be on them.

On politics, have you picked a presidential candidate yet?

Not really. I worked with Biden when he was vice president. I have had discussions with Elizabeth Warren in the past. I think our field is looking pretty good.

[Former presidential candidate] Jay Inslee and I were at the table when we formed the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. I think he raised the bar for the environment [in the race], which was good.

You first got into politics more than 40 years ago and were seen as a very energetic door-to-door campaigner for local candidates. Do you still do that in your own races?

Yeah, I love it. It’s the best measurement of how you’re doing. And even when you get bad news at the door, at least you get feedback [chuckling].

I should have kept a diary of going door to door. I’m amazed at what people will come out with or how they’ll appear. I go, “Really? Did you think I needed to see you? Oh, Lord.”